This Day In Literary History
On February 6th, 1937, Of Mice and Men, the classic novella by the legendary American writer John Steinbeck, was published. It was one of several great novels by Steinbeck that were written and set during the Great Depression.
Of Mice and Men (the title comes from a line in a poem by legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns) told the story of two migrant farm workers, George Milton and Lennie Small. The ironically named Lennie Small is a giant of a man with incredible physical strength but very limited mental capacity.
A gentle giant with the mind of a child, Lennie's inability to understand his physical strength forms the tragic crux of the story. George Milton is the polar opposite of Lennie. Small in stature but intelligent and wise, he looks after Lennie, who is his best and only friend.
The novel opens with George and Lennie finding work on a ranch in Soledad, California. They had to flee from their previous place of employment when the overly affectionate Lennie's innocent petting of a young woman's dress was mistaken for attempted rape.
At the ranch, the two friends run afoul of Curley, the owner's son. Curley, a petit man like George, suffers from a Napoleon complex. He's a surly, aggressive ex-boxer who hates big men. Slim, one of the workers, befriends Lennie and gives him a puppy.
George and Lennie dream of someday having their own piece of land to farm. They've been working hard and saving their money. When they befriend Crooks, the black stable hand, he wants in on the dream, too. An educated man, he had become embittered and isolated because the racist white workers want nothing to do with a black man.
Another worker who becomes George and Lennie's friend and wants in on their dream is Candy, an aging handyman who lost a hand in an accident. Candy fears that he will soon become unemployable and useless.
Meanwhile, Curley's wife, an abused yet vain woman, shamelessly flirts with all the men - except Crooks, because he's black and she's a racist. At one point, she threatens to have him lynched. When the other men ignore her advances, she belittles them.
Tragedy strikes twice when first Lennie accidentally kills his puppy by petting it too hard, then Curley's wife pays him a visit, looking for a sympathetic ear to listen to her gripes.
The woman bemoans her loneliness and the fact that her dreams of becoming a movie star have been crushed. Lennie admires her pretty hair and she offers to let him stroke it. Once again, Lennie underestimates his own strength and is too rough with her.
Initially angry with Lennie because he's messing up her hair, the woman feels his strength, panics, and starts screaming. This causes Lennie to panic. Desperate to get her to stop screaming, he accidentally breaks her neck, killing her.
Lennie flees, and the corpse is discovered by the other ranch hands. A devastated George realizes that this the end of his and Lennie's dream. He meets Lennie at their secret place, where he'd told Lennie to go if there was trouble.
George talks again about their dream as if nothing has happened. Then, when Lennie isn't looking, George shoots him in the back of the head to spare him from the horrific death that Curley and his lynch mob have planned for him.
Of Mice and Men received rave reviews upon its initial publication in 1937 - even more praise than John Steinbeck's other classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath - and became an all-time classic work of literature.
A staple of study for middle school English classes, the novella is often targeted for banning from the classroom and school libraries by conservative parents and pressure groups. It appears on the American Library Association's (ALA) annual lists of banned and challenged books.
Recently, the novella ranked #4 on the ALA's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century. Why would anyone want to ban Of Mice and Men from schools? Complaints range from vulgar language to the promotion of leftist political views and euthanasia.
Of Mice and Men would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1939 which starred Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie. Another acclaimed feature film adaptation, released in 1992, starred Gary Sinise (who also directed) as George and John Malkovich as Lennie.
John Steinbeck originally conceived Of Mice and Men as a play in the form of a novella. It's comprised of three acts, with each act containing two chapters. Steinbeck saw it as a novella that could be acted out as a play from its dialogue or a play that read like a novella. He later adapted it as a stage play.
The character of Lennie Small was based on a real man that Steinbeck had known back when he himself worked as an itinerant laborer:
I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn't kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times I saw him do it. We couldn't stop him until it was too late.
In a strange and disturbing twist, the character of Lennie Small is used as the criteria for executing retarded convicts in the state of Texas. If a mentally retarded defendant is convicted of a capital offense, he is still eligible for execution if when interviewed, he appears to be smarter than Lennie Small.
John Steinbeck's son, Thomas Steinbeck, an outspoken anti-capital punishment activist, has angrily protested this practice, calling it a misappropriation of and an insult to his father's work.
Quote Of The Day
"Maybe the hardest thing in writing is simply to tell the truth about things as we see them." - John Steinbeck
Today's video features a complete reading of John Steinbeck's classic novella, Of Mice and Men. Enjoy!